This year marks the twenty-fifth anniversary of the release of U2’s debut album, Boy. And while the band’s current world tour, which kicked off last night before a sold-out crowd at the San Diego Sports Arena, is in support of last year’s chart-topping How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, the four lads from Dublin were clearly feeling a bit sentimental, making for some surprising vintage moments during the two-hour set.
The lion’s share of material came from the new record, starting with the opening “City of Blinding Lights” and the album’s punchy first single, “Vertigo,” which singer Bono introduced by saying, “Spanish lessons in San Diego . . . I don’t think so.”
The night’s first surprise came soon thereafter, when Bono announced, “We’re gonna go back to where it started.” As a flag unfurled over the backdrop featuring the Boy album cover, the foursome — Bono, guitarist the Edge, bassist Adam Clayton and drummer Larry Mullen Jr. — jumped into the way-back machine for “The Electric Co.,” with Bono segueing into a snippet of the showtune “Send in the Clowns.” U2, who have largely ignored their distant past on recent tours, then treated longtime fans to “An Cat Dubh” and “Into the Heart” — both also off of Boy. “An Cat Dubh” was the concert’s moody highlight, with its hard bass line pulsing under the bluish stage lights.
As Bono worked the runway — as on the previous tour, the stage set featured a circular ramp that extended out into the middle of the floor — the band jumped into “Beautiful Day,” from 2000’s All That You Can’t Leave Behind. “New Year’s Day,” the band’s 1983 breakthrough U.S. hit, followed and received an uproarious ovation, proving that U2 weren’t the only ones feeling nostalgic.
The alternation of new and old tracks continued throughout the set. The band effectively combined the new album’s mid-tempo ballads “Miracle Drug” with Bono’s tribute to his late father “Sometimes You Can’t Make It on Your Own,” during which he removed his trademark sunglasses to deliver his most impassioned vocals. The rocking “Love and Peace or Else,” which found Larry Mullen Jr. banging away on the drums at the apex of the ramp, was followed by War‘s “Sunday Bloody Sunday.”
During an acerbic “Bullet the Blue Sky,” off of 1987’s The Joshua Tree, a blindfolded Bono got down on his knees and held his hands over his head as if bound. The staunch anti-war song ended with snippets of “Johnny Come Marching Home” and the chorus from “The Hands That Built America,” a song the group contributed to Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York. The political statement continued, as “Bullet” was followed by U2’s beautiful Joshua Tree ballad “Running to Stand Still.” Featuring Bono on harmonica and acoustic guitar, the song provided the intro for a video listing the articles of the United Nation’s Declaration of Human Rights.
The band then delved into material from 1991’s Achtung Baby, with guitarist the Edge taking the spotlight with the fierce solos that fuel that record. “Zoo Station” and “The Fly” featured provocative sayings flashing quickly on the backdrop of beaded curtains. The show went on to close with a lively rendition of All That You Can’t Leave Behind‘s “Elevation.”
Coming back for the encores, the quartet revisited 1984’s The Unforgettable Fire for a rousing “Pride (In the Name of Love),” with Bono taking the opportunity to refer to the work he’s been doing on behalf of third-world debt relief by asking the crowd to “sing for Africa” at the song’s close. And during “Where the Streets Have No Name,” an African flag unfurled over the backdrop. Proving he can be high-minded and smooth-talking at the same time, Bono announced, “We are more powerful, we are extraordinary as one” . . . as the band struck the opening notes of Achtung Baby‘s “One.” This was followed by impassioned versions of new songs “All Because of You” and “Yahweh.”
The band saved the night’s biggest revelation for last, as Mullen began the repetitive drumbeat to “40,” the biblical sing-along that used to close U2 shows. In a nod to the early days, at the song’s conclusion, Bono walked off the stage first, followed by Clayton and the Edge, while Mullen provided the beat to the crowd’s chanting of the chorus “How long to sing this song.” When the lights came on, most in the San Diego Sports Arena were still singing.